The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Listening to ‘The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling’ is exhausting work

A podcast promised clarity from Harry Potter author on how she feels about trans issues. But it falls to the audience to fact-check her.

Author J.K. Rowling attends a premiere of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” in 2016. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
11 min

While I was listening to the third episode of the new podcast “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling,” a few lines sent me down a Wikipedia rabbit hole to make sure I hadn’t lost my mind. Rowling and her sympathetic host, Megan Phelps-Roper, were decrying “cancel culture,” using right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos as an example. In late 2016/early 2017, several colleges banned Yiannopoulos from speaking on campus — a move that Phelps-Roper claimed had the unfortunate effect of backfiring against the progressive movement. “Milo went from relative obscurity to being a regular on political talk shows in a matter of a few months,” Phelps-Roper asserts.

Milo Yiannopoulos? Obscure before his campus bannings? Really?

He’d already been a loud misogynist ringleader in the GamerGate controversy starting in 2014. He’d already helped spearhead a Twitter charge against the actress Leslie Jones. He was already a Breitbart editor; he already had a speaking career. College campuses didn’t pluck him from obscurity just to ban him; they wanted to ban him because of whom he already was and what he’d already done.

The Yiannopoulos conversation takes up only a minute or two of the “Witch Trials” episode, and it’s tangential to what I set out to write about. But it encapsulates the experience of listening to the podcast. Things are said that sound reasonable. You would only know they were unreasonable — they were, in fact, wrong — if you had the patience to fact-check, or if you had the personal experience of counterevidence. I stood in a packed Cleveland ballroom at the Republican National Convention in the summer of 2016, and I personally watched Yiannopoulos get a standing ovation. Obscure, my eye.

Can it really be true, as the episode implies, that legions of teenagers began identifying outside of the gender binary solely because the social media platform Tumblr gave them profile options beyond male and female? Is it common for transgender rights activists to virulently protest “feminist” conferences, as the podcast asserts?

To answer that last question, you would have to already know — because the podcast won’t tell you — that the “feminist” conferences protested by transgender rights advocates are typically gatherings that specifically exclude transgender women from the umbrella of the feminist movement. You would have to know that there are many feminist organizations and individual feminists, such as myself, who find this exclusion unconscionable. That transgender women don’t want to take down feminism; they want to be a part of it.

Listening to “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling” is exhausting. It’s exhausting because it requires constant vigilance.

And it’s exhausting because the phrase “constant vigilance,” I’ve just realized, entered my own lexicon via Mad-Eye Moody, a beloved Harry Potter character. Because Rowling is a brilliant and beloved storyteller who is astonishingly good at entering lexicons, manipulating language and telling fantasy stories. It’s how she became famous. It’s why events surrounding Rowling these past few years have felt like a godawful mess.

Is J.K. Rowling transphobic?

That’s why I was listening to the podcast to begin with. It promised that Rowling would “speak with unprecedented candor and depth about the controversies surrounding her — from book bans to debates on gender and sex.” Since 2020, Rowling’s status as a celebrated liberal and literary icon has taken a nosedive because of tweets and references that supporters of trans rights view as transphobic but that Rowling says are merely trying to protect women and girls.

“If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased,” she tweeted in the summer of 2020, as part of a thread protesting gender-neutral phrasing related to menstruation.

She followed it up with a lengthy blog post lamenting the “new trans activism” and questioning whether young people were identifying as trans because they’ve been “persuaded” via social fads rather than innate identity. She said the transgender rights movement offered “cover to predators like few before it.” She began retweeting random accounts that said things such as, “My grandmother had the right to get an abortion, to female only spaces, and did not feel any social pressure to use a rapist’s preferred pronouns. For some reason 60+ years later, I do not have any of these.”

I won’t dissect Rowling’s every tweet or retweet of the past three years — Glamour magazine has a good general rundown, if you’re interested — but I’ll fast-forward a bit to say that Rowling’s Twitter account in the past few months has returned multiple times to one particular British case: a transgender woman who was convicted of rape before she transitioned, and who was now set to be transferred to a women’s prison. Rowling’s attention to this story appeared to be in service to a broader argument that it is grievously dangerous for cisgender women to have to share spaces with transgender women.

What else has she said?

She’s said that she “knows and loves” trans people. She has said that “trans people need and deserve protection.” She has said that she supports trans people calling themselves whatever they want and that she feels “empathy and solidarity with trans women who have been abused by men.”

If you claim that Rowling is transphobic in the public sphere, quotes such as the ones above are the ones that will probably be cited by her supporters. How can she be transphobic? She said she knows and loves trans people!

You might have seen a recent column written by a British writer named EJ Rosetta. Rosetta claimed to have been assigned a piece called “20 Transphobic JK Rowling Quotes We’re Done With,” but said that, after months of research, she hadn’t been able to find “a single one.” Rowling, according to Rosetta, “was saying ‘there are downsides that I feel should be discussed’ not ‘I hate trans people’.”

There, truly, is the whole issue in a nutshell. If your bar for bigotry requires Rowling to say out loud, “I hate trans people,” then that bar will never be cleared. Even if Rowling feels that way, I doubt she’d ever say it that way; even conservative pundits know not to say it that way. There is simply nothing to be strategically gained by uttering such an obviously prejudiced sentence.

Is J.K. Rowling transphobic?

Journalism is a business for sticklers. Reporters are discouraged from calling anyone transphobic, or homophobic, or racist, because doing so requires knowing what’s in their hearts when the only thing we can know with certainty is what comes out of their mouths.

So what I can say is that what comes out of her mouth, or goes onto her Twitter account, has a fuzzy aura of harmful rhetoric. Rowling might indeed believe she has transgender friends. But taken as a whole, her body of communication on the issue, such as the things she chooses to retweet and the provocative language she uses while doing so — cumulatively, it sucks.

Her communications have implicitly conflated being trans with being a predator. Her communications have made unsupported claims about transitioning, and detransitioning, and what demographics are transitioning, and why (referencing, for example, a heavily flawed 2018 study about “rapid-onset gender dysphoria”). The communications have implied that many trans men are confused, and that some trans women are actually just dangerous men in drag (referring to female prisoners “being terrified of being locked up with male rapists, murderers and domestic abusers”).

She has retweeted an article from an online magazine called Reduxx, which bills itself as “feminist news and opinion.” But what kind of “feminist news” site has zero articles on fair pay or reproductive rights, and only articles about transgender people who have allegedly committed crimes?

If she knows and loves trans people, I’m wondering why she doesn’t dedicate equal space to retweeting articles where trans folks are the heroes, not the villains of the story. Or the victims of violent crime — as they disproportionately are — rather than the perpetrators.

Rowling’s tweets are exhausting. They are exhausting because they require constant vigilance, because they are not screaming out obvious bigotry, a la “I hate trans people.” Rather, they are whispering a curated plausible deniability, the kind that purports to be just asking reasonable questions with simple answers.

Do I want a woman in Britain to have to share a cell with a convicted rapist? Of course not; I don’t particularly want anyone of any gender or nationality to have to share a cell with a convicted rapist.

But engaging with Rowling’s tweets on that particular news story requires getting in the weeds about a single, high-profile, messy-as-hell case that needs to be addressed with a scalpel, not a bludgeon. A situation that doesn’t really tell us anything useful about how trans women generally and overwhelmingly behave in female spaces.

I do not know what is in Rowling’s heart. But reading her Twitter feed, this is the overall effect: Her Twitter feed does not ask its readers to think. It asks them to fear. It creates phobias. Of trans people. It creates trans phobias.

Into all this: the magnified reaction that Rowling’s onetime fans are having to these developments, because before all this, Rowling was not some easily ignored anti-LGBTQ bloviator. She appeared to be a genuine ally, a protector, a friend. She is exactly the kind of voice that decent people who have not paid much attention to transgender issues might decide to listen to, which gives her voice outsize power. It requires of her an outsize responsibility to be fair, researched and transparent.

Into all this: the magnified, misguided affinity that Rowling herself appears to have to gender-related issues — an affinity that she claims is related to her own history of domestic violence and assault and her own pursuit of safe spaces for women. I can only imagine she believes she’s pursuing a just cause, if for no other reason than people do not generally self-immolate over causes they believe are unjust. Believing something is just does not, of course, make it so. And it does nothing for the people whose actual lives have been affected by her rhetoric.

As for “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling”: New episodes of the podcast are released every Tuesday, but none of the three released so far have delved much, as promised, into “debates on gender and sex.” The most recent episode ended with audio clips of transgender rights activists yelling in protest, so maybe the next installment will finally ask Rowling to provide a full and thorough accounting of the things she’s said and the harm she’s caused.

I’ll listen, but I’m not optimistic that the podcast will provide anything truly revelatory. I’m not convinced that the podcast’s intent is to reveal. When you title something called “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling,” you have already set up a narrative in which Rowling is the persecuted figure.

Watch out for that narrative. Be vigilant. Because Rowling needs to be questioned, rigorously. She’s a talented enough writer to know exactly what she’s saying and exactly how it’s landing. She’s a talented enough writer to know exactly how to thread needle after needle, so her supporters can claim there’s nothing to see there and her critics get exhausted.

There’s plenty to see there. There’s plenty to question. The point of all of this isn’t that Rowling needs to be burned at the stake. The point is that there is heat here, and it needs to be felt.