Rowling’s posts began after she read an article that included the phrase “people who menstruate.” In context, the article was about access to sanitary supplies during covid-19. It referenced “women” and “girls,” but also “gender non-binary persons.”
“ ‘People who menstruate,’ ” Rowling snarked online. “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
A few minutes later, she expanded on why the phrase apparently upset her: “If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased,” she wrote. “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.”
In other words, Rowling, who has a history of questionable statements on this issue, believes that what makes someone a woman is a collection of certain chromosomes, plus a collection of certain life experiences: someone who was identified as male at birth cannot have the same life experiences as someone who was designated female, she suggests. And therefore, a trans woman represents a threat to Rowling’s version of womanhood.
Her main assertion, the core of her anxiety, is that the acknowledgment of transgenderism somehow erases her own experiences. That if transgender women are women, then she cannot be.
We could spend a few hours debating her semantics. The “lived reality of women globally” is a nonsensical statement, since the reality of a woman in Belgium is different from the reality of a woman in Burkina Faso or Brazil.
Bringing biology into it — “erasing the concept of sex” — is a straw man. Science, with its history of eugenics and biased IQ tests, hasn’t historically been a clear-eyed deliverance from discrimination, but rather a justification for it. Nobody is trying to argue that genitalia doesn’t exist. Supporters of transgender rights are merely explaining that genitalia are but one of the many possible markers that women might use to, as Rowling puts it, meaningfully discuss their lives.
Rowling’s tweets were a sideshow, an unnecessary insertion into a week filled with long overdue conversations about race that deserved our full and undivided attention. But they also illustrated a confounding perspective that is not beside the point; it is part of the point; it is the entire point of many debates we have about justice and equality.
Rowling’s fear of “erasure” is similar to the most common argument put forth by detractors of same-sex marriage five years ago: If gay people were allowed to marry, the argument went, then somehow it would render these detractors’ own heterosexual marriages meaningless.
The mechanics of this were never fully explained — were gay couples going to personally deliver divorce papers to all the straight couples of the land? — but the fear was fully entertained. The Supreme Court arguments in the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges case revolved almost entirely around conservative justices positing that gay people wanted to take away the institution of marriage, while the petitioner patiently repeated that, no, they just wanted to join the institution.
This is also similar to an obtuse argument put forth by detractors of Black Lives Matter, both the slogan and the hashtag. In bringing attention to black lives, the argument goes, aren’t protesters negating the importance of other, nonblack lives? Don’t all lives matter?
And sure, they do, but this correction is tantamount to the fire department showing up and methodically dousing every single house on the block before dealing with the one that’s actually burning. All houses matter, but some houses are in need of more pressing attention.
It’s the history of social progress: demands for basic decency are treated as if justice is a zero-sum game. As if giving you more means that I get less. As if acknowledging your humanity somehow devalues my own. It is a greedy, petty, insecure worldview, and it has hamstrung progress for centuries.
If your response to disenfranchised people asking for equal treatment is to wonder, “But how would that impact my rights?,” please rest assured that the answer is almost always, “It won’t.” Kindness costs you nothing. Equality costs you nothing. The broad, complicated experiences of womanhood are not negated by new folks adding their own complicated experiences.
The circumstances are vastly different, but I’m reminded of Sojourner Truth, the brilliant orator and former enslaved woman, reflecting on how society’s then-dainty definition of womanhood did not account for the cruelty forced upon her life, nor for the strength it took her to overcome it. “I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me,” she said. “And ain’t I a woman?”
Again, the circumstances are vastly different — no group in American history has been so brutalized as the black people it enslaved — but the heartbreaking refrain is the idea that marginalized populations are asked, again and again, to explain their own humanity to people who somehow see this act as stealing.
J.K. Rowling can still be a woman. She can still call herself a woman. The pronouns she uses to describe herself are entirely intact. Frankly, after scrolling through her Twitter mentions for a few hours this weekend — if I were her, I wouldn’t be worried what pronouns people were using for me. I would be reading the anguished, angry responses from fans, and I would be worrying about my adjectives.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.