The day’s agenda mostly consisted of planning for the year. How would the alliance join get-out-the-vote efforts for the upcoming elections? Should the group push for D.C. statehood? Launch a book drive? Set up a Little Free Library, a miniature bookcase where passersby swap reading material? Then, about a half-hour in, communications director Danielle Ternes offered another suggestion. “It might be a good idea right now to do something for transgender rights,” she said, “in the current climate.”
The “current climate” originated in December, when Rowling tweeted in defense of Maya Forstater, a British tax researcher who lost her job for making statements widely perceived as anti-trans. Rowling’s #IStandWithMaya tweet caused a firestorm on social media, as LGBTQ advocates rose up in condemnation. “Trans women are women,” the Human Rights Campaign tweeted. “Trans men are men. Non-binary people are non-binary. CC: JK Rowling.” Critics labeled the author a bigot and a “TERF” — a trans-exclusionary radical feminist. Vox went so far as to declare that she had “just ruined Harry Potter.”
Many Potter fans joined in the denunciation. On Facebook, the D.C. chapter of the alliance posted that Rowling’s “transphobic views are completely unacceptable and hurtful to so many who have been inspired by her work.” It wasn’t the first time the author had drawn political criticism from die-hard devotees: She’d previously been accused of transphobia for liking a tweet referring to “men in dresses,” which her spokesperson blamed on the author “holding her phone incorrectly.” But nothing had caused this level of blowback. “She’s done lots of stuff before that’s crossed the line,” Ternes told me, “but not far enough that people had to confront it. This is what forced people to confront it.”
It may seem unusual for a group of literary fans to be speaking out against the political views of the author of their beloved books — but none of this should be a surprise. Since its founding in 2005 as a “novel” approach — pun intended — to social change, the Harry Potter Alliance, which is now active in 30 countries spanning six continents, has tried to push Rowling’s fans beyond writing fan-fiction and adapting the sport of Quidditch for non-magical Muggles who can’t fly on broomsticks. Its most famous effort was a successful “Not in Harry’s Name” campaign, which in 2014 ensured that all Potter-themed chocolate products from Warner Bros. would be fair trade.
New York University adjunct professor Zoe Fraade-Blanar highlights the group’s work in her book “Superfandom: How Our Obsessions Are Changing What We Buy and Who We Are,”co-written with Aaron M. Glazer. According to Fraade-Blanar, Rowling’s presence on social media increases a sense of intimacy between the author and her fans. But it also intensifies disagreements. “Because fandom is often used to help people form their own identities,” Fraade-Blanar told me, “when that fan object changes unexpectedly ... you’re not just changing someone’s hobby. You’re actually changing a part of them.” This can lead to feelings of sadness, outrage or even betrayal — and ultimately the kind of social-media pile-on that overtook Rowling.
Potter fandom includes a large number of LGBTQ people, especially young people, who felt deeply hurt by Rowling’s actions. Jackson Bird, a New York-based activist who spent half a decade as the alliance’s national communications director, credits fellow fans with embracing him when he came out as transgender in 2015 at 25. In a December op-edin the New York Times, he wrote that Rowling’s tweet was “like a punch in the gut” and a stark contrast to his fan community, which “adhered to the values we learned from the books about being yourself, loving those who are different from you and sticking up for the underdog.”
Bird told me recently that he understands fans for whom Rowling is “basically canceled.” He still believes that “if she had a goodwill conversation with a trans person — or even a cis person who could educate her on some of this stuff — we could break through.” But in December, Rowling declined a request from the LGBTQ group GLAAD to talk about trans issues. (She did not respond to a request for comment for this article.)
At East City Bookshop, alliance members eagerly discussed how to communicate their support for trans people. Maybe members would hold a fundraiser for a local trans group. Maybe they’d host a readathon of books with trans characters. Maybe they’d do something special for D.C. Pride this summer.
In the meantime, they continue to celebrate Harry Potter, believing that their allegiance is bigger than the books or Rowling. Marieka Cober, the D.C. chapter organizer, has a yellow lightning bolt — like Harry’s famous scar — tattooed on her ankle; she says it represents the friends she’s made through Harry Potter fandom as much as the text itself. When it comes to fans challenging Rowling, Cober invoked a line from the end of the first Potter book. “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies,” Hogwarts headmaster AlbusDumbledore tells his young pupils, “but just as much to stand up to our friends.” The Harry Potter Alliance plans to be around and standing up for a while — “as long as J.K. Rowling has a Twitter account,” Ternes said.