Perhaps you were busy shielding from COVID this week. Perhaps you’d taken to the street to protest against police brutality. Perhaps you were lost in another work day of emails pinging passive-aggressively across the Wi-Fi. Perhaps you were homeschooling your kids, or cooking your zillionth meal, or your Internet simply collapsed under the weight of your streaming. All of these are valid excuses for missing a series of rather punchy messages from best-selling author J.K. Rowling, who took to Twitter to ignite debate, principally rejecting the accuracy of the term “people who menstruate” in a piece about people who menstruate. The Internet erupted in a familiar series of outraged convulsions, rings of bile scattered outward, aided by the warp speed of digital communication. Many took offense to Rowling’s “transparent transphobia,” and many rallied behind her as the voice of a “vast majority.” Little did any of us know that those aggy tweets were a light entrée, the main course was a long scroll of rhetorical emotion usually confined to those long-ass breakup texts from your ex.
Some people have criticized Rowling for bringing up transition during a pandemic and a racial revolution. “There are bigger fish to fry,” they say. But if we’ve gleaned anything from the lockdown experience, it’s that contemporary issues don’t neatly tuck away because of an aggressive virus. They magnify without real life’s stabilizing cacophony of commuting and working and chic little weeknight dinners nowhere fancy. I’m not sure I can deftly probe into the myriad issues with Rowling’s longer statement. I will say that like Rowling, we’ve all worn our teenage skins uncomfortably, our bodies alien and unfamiliar prison-like cells. At some point, most of us have wanted to wrap ourselves in a cloak of invisibility and simply pass through the world unscrutinized. This is not the same as wanting to transition. I cannot speak for an entire group of people, but transition is not a quick Band-Aid for a little gender discomfort, nor do I suspect it’s an easy choice. We’re in danger of reducing trans lives to a philosophical quandary, or a debate, or a trend. They are existences. To question that is to deny it.
Swimming through the treacle of tweets, two camps emerged, a sort of civil war between lived realities—that of the cis and that of the transitioned. I’ve revisited the blog post, assessing the anatomy of a scandal, which revolves in part around anatomy itself. I can’t shake the feeling that the crux of the issue is that for some people the trans body is immediately sinister—secretive and covert. A magician’s sleight of hand, and we’re the unwilling marks, unwittingly using public restrooms without full knowledge of the biological history of the person in the next stall. Nobody wants women to feel unsafe. Nobody. But for me, that includes anyone identifying as one. Rowling’s house appears only to allow access to those sorted into womanhood at birth, and contains a constant interrogation of anything outside the castle walls.
It’s become a turf war with cis women and transwomen pitted against each other. Transpeople ask for understanding and are met with dehumanizing queries, cross-examination of motive, or even blanket denial. The internet concentrates these camps, the aim being to take an aggressive stance in 140 characters and close your ears to any notion that each individual trans experience is as varied as a lifetime of cis womanhood.
One of the depressing takeaways is the erosion of the Harry Potter franchise. It’s not the loss of readers, nor commerce (J.K. can take the financial hit), but the foundations of the world she built for us suddenly feel unsteady, Diagon Alley pitching to an incline that makes it unwalkable. Of course, there was magic in the tales, but the author always had more up her sleeve. At its heart, Potter is a saga of equality. J.K. took on the systemic oppression of minorities—the racism against Mudbloods—and pioneered tolerance, regardless of where you were born and who your parents are. We suspended disbelief in the dragons and headless ghosts and Horcruxes, but the message simmering at the bottom of the caldron was unifying because it was love. Gallons of love and acceptance and allowance. Deep friendships and surrogate families and constant reminders to care for each other and fight oppression.
It's painful to see J.K.’s ecosystem of acceptance quake. To see her wield the privilege of her platform and create discord between fellow humans (she has more followers than there are trans people on the planet). She stabs interrogatively at trans-identification with a basilisk fang. It’s grim to watch the noble core of the Potterverse melt like a Strepsil, to see the wave of inclusivity she built seeping into the sand. All we can do now is stand back and watch the slow evaporation of her legacy of hope.