In the magical world of Harry Potter, the justice-minded and rebellious adolescent characters drink something called “Polyjuice Potion” to temporarily take on the general appearance of other people, even those of entirely different anatomies and gender expressions. As a teenager, I remember reading this and thinking, “Oh God, I wish it were that easy.”
At the time, I was very much in the closet as a transgender girl with scarcely any vocabulary — not even the now familiar medicalizing term “gender dysphoria” — to explain to the adults in my life how I was in pain, and the world J.K. Rowling created offered escape. It wasn’t the genre elements that appealed to me but the central message of courage in the face of evil and authenticity in the midst of urged conformity. Woven throughout the narrative is an insistence on love and community and integrity and inclusion, which is why it has broken my heart in recent years to see Rowling’s inexplicable replacement of justice-minded imagination with a bigotry-driven rejection of science and reality.
On Thursday, Rowling tweeted a defense of the British researcher Maya Forstater, whose employer declined to renew her contract in light of Forstater’s own tweets, which included statements such as “men cannot change into women.” Forstater took her former employer to court, where the judge sided with the employer, stating that Forstater’s online commentary “creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment … not worthy of respect in a democratic society.” In her tweet, Rowling effectively dismissed all of this, suggesting that Forstater was being fired for “stating that sex is real,” a common transphobic assertion that has been dismissed by medical experts and other scientists.
It wasn’t the first time Rowling had entered such territory. Last year, the transgender journalist Katelyn Burns published a well-sourced and nuanced piece with the late publication Them, in which she investigated the growing concern over Rowling’s perceived transphobia. There was Rowling’s “liking” of a tweet that referred to trans women as “men in dresses,” explained away by her publicists as a misunderstood “middle-aged moment.” There was her endorsement of a Medium article that perpetuated a common claim that trans women are a threat to women’s spaces, notably bathrooms. Most troubling was a trans woman character in a novel she wrote under her pen name Robert Galbraith, which mocked the character’s Adam’s apple and hands, and insinuated that prison rape would have been fun for her before sex reassignment surgery.
Like many other trans folks, I had caught glimpses of much of this, but Burns’s precise summarization was a punch to the gut. Nevertheless, I naively held out hope that Rowling was probably confused about transgender identities and simply needed someone to clue her into the reality of our lives, helping her cut through the disinformation pushed by bigots. I have seen people with impeccable progressive credentials somehow be unaware of basic facts about the trans community; was it not possible that the most beloved children’s author of my generation, someone who consistently seemed to operate from a place of empathy, simply needed better friends who could help allay her lack of knowledge? Was it maybe a series of clumsy mistakes made in good faith that painted a harsher picture than reality?
Waking up Thursday morning to Rowling’s unequivocal defense of Forstater was searing. I felt foolish and betrayed. I felt guilty for not affirming my siblings in the trans and non-binary community who had the courage to speak out against her history with conviction. I thought of the numerous conversations I had navigated with other trans and non-binary people on Rowling’s history, nodding in agreement that, yes, she had been extremely problematic and hurtful and certainly engaged in casual transphobia, but I demurred at suggestions she was consciously bigoted. Still believing in the stated equality of the fiction she had dreamed into being, I wasn’t yet ready to go there. This is the woman who had used an image referencing the famous cupboard under the stairs to loudly insist that no one should live in a closet.
More than that, I couldn’t concede that a writer famous for creating space for marginalized people in an imaginative world (even if it was often retroactive, as when she belatedly announced that Dumbledore was gay after finishing the series) could ignore the universal consensus of medical experts and other scientists, from the World Health Organization to the American Medical Association to the Royal Society of Medicine, validating and affirming trans people in our authenticity.
After Rowling turned down an offer from the LGBTQ media organization GLAAD to have an off-the-record conversation with trans people that could potentially close this gap in understanding, I was left realizing that transgender people embody the magical world of Harry Potter better than almost anyone. If the root of Rowling’s books is the constant miracle of overcoming considerable odds with love and courage to negotiate hatred, trans people, who leave our homes every day into a world full of discrimination and violence against our bodies and souls, are the closest thing this world has to magic.