What do you call it when thousands of people threaten to rape and murder a woman, online strangers tell her to kill herself and protesters post her home address online so that mobs can seek her out in person? The words that come to mind include “harassment,” “cyberbullying” and “criminal threats.” No decent person would find such behavior acceptable, particularly if they were committed to tolerance, equality and peace. But apparently the rules are different for J.K. Rowling, who, over the past few years has been flooded with death threats and even doxxed by people who claim to be pursuing justice.
Her crime? Defending women’s rights. Rowling’s hesitance to embrace policies set forth by transgender advocates is not rooted in bigotry of any sort. Rather, it’s guided by concerns about how these policies have been abused and the subsequent threat to women’s safety. And though no one is obliged to agree with what Rowling has to say, we should at least respect her right to say it without being threatened and maligned.
The controversy began in 2019, when Rowling tweeted out in support of Maya Forstater, a British woman who lost her job due to her belief that sex is immutable. (A court ultimately ruled that the decision to fire Forstater violated her protections under the Equalities Act.) As the situation unfolded, Rowling tweeted, “Dress however you please. 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”.
There’s nothing hateful about these sentences; in fact, the Tweet explicitly endorses an extremely socially liberal viewpoint. But the mere support of the idea that sex is real was taken as evidence of undeniable transphobia.
The outrage continued in June of 2020 when Rowling pointed out the dehumanizing language in an op-ed about “people who menstruate.” She’s hardly the only one to point out the insulting trend of referring to women primarily in terms of their reproductive function, including phrases like “birthing people” and “bodies with vaginas.” Not everyone who menstruates self-identifies as a woman, and not all women menstruate, but menstruation, vaginas and giving birth are still properties of the female body. Denying this is simply illogical, and it makes it more difficult to address aspects of gender inequality such as female genital mutilation, period poverty and maternal mortality.
Other outlets’ coverage of the row were overblown to the point of absurdity. Vox accused Rowling of “perpetuat[ing] the type of pernicious hate and misinformation that leads to trans women, especially teens and black trans women, becoming victims of sexual assault” without bothering to explain how the basic fact that women menstruate could account for violent crime. Vogue, Vulture and The Washington Post joined the chorus, too, doubling down on the denial of basic reality by insisting that menstruation is a “non-gendered” experience.
Soon after, Rowling published a rich and poignant essay that culminated in an account of her experience as a survivor of domestic abuse and sexual assault. This, Rowling explains, is the final reason behind her concerns “about the consequences of the current trans activism”:
“When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman — and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones — then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside.” [Emphasis is mine.]
The issue is not with trans people. It’s with policies that allow men to enter spaces designed to keep women safe. And it’s with the people who take advantage of those policies to harass, intimidate, assault and terrorize women in such places.
This essay should have opened a door to conversations about balancing trans people’s dignity with women and girls’ safety. You’d think that people invested in ending gender-based violence would be particularly sympathetic to what Rowling has been through.
But none of this seemed to matter to the actors whose careers she launched, the countless media outlets that reported on her “transphobia” as if it were a fact, not an accusation, the former fans who have taken to burning her books (and bragging about it on TikTok), the user behind a since-deleted account that threatened her with a “pipe bomb” and the activists who recently doxxed her. (The following day, they took down the post containing Rowling’s address not because encouraging harassment is wrong, but because they had “received an overwhelming amount of … transphobic messages” in response.)
And despite it all, Rowling refuses to capitulate. Over the last year, she’s continued to use her platform to speak out about the difficulties faced by detransitioners, the concerning trend of medical professionals prescribing children puberty blockers despite long-term health risks, the lunacy of police documenting rapists with male genitalia as women and the fear lesbians face within the LGBT community.
Of course, part of why Rowling continues to stand up for what she believes in has to do with the fact that she’s the author of one of the most successful book series in human history. Those who share her beliefs but not her fame have lost their jobs, faced ostracization and been threatened with violence.
The demonization of J.K. Rowling is a symptom of an increasingly illiberal climate that stifles dialogue, punishes dissidence and threatens the ideals of a free society. Those of us who believe in the liberal values of tolerance and open-mindedness can no longer remain silent. Support Rowling’s right to speak her mind without fear, and you’ll be defending your own right to do the same. Sit back — or worse, take part in the hate — and you’ll be feeding a monster. As Albus Dumbledore told Hogwarts students at the end of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” “There will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.” The rest of us have that choice, too. Let’s make the right one.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that the photo that initially accompanied this article was not chosen by the author. At her request, The Daily has replaced it.