TW: Discussion of Transphobia
“It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be,” Albus Dumbledore says in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
It is hard to believe that these words were written by the same J.K. Rowling who now writes tweets full of blatant transphobia, insisting that she should not be villainized for claiming that “sex is real” after contesting the use of the phrase “people who menstruate.” “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” she tweeted, implying that the only people who menstruate are women, and that all people who menstruate are necessarily women. Despite the backlash she received, she has unapologetically expressed her transphobic views several times since, including in a long article full of misrepresentations and flawed scientific reasoning that attempt to classify gender dysphoria as a phase most people “grow out of.”
This is particularly dangerous given the immense platform and influence Rowling has. But it is not just her opinions—her actions are also tangibly harming the trans community. On March 12, she publicly supported Caroline Farrow, an anti-trans, anti-abortion, and anti-LGBTQ activist. Around the same time, she also ardently opposed Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill, which would make it easier for trans people to legally change their gender. She is legitimizing hateful rhetoric and helping anti-trans movements gain traction—Republican senator James Lankford even quoted her blog post to oppose the Equality Act in the US Senate in 2020.
Like many Harry Potter fans across the globe, reading Rowling’s words broke my heart. These books quite literally determined the trajectory of my life—it is the Harry Potter books that taught me that “words are, in [Dumbledore’s] not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” Reading Harry Potter as a child, I felt that infinite magic for the first time, and I have no doubt in my mind that these books are why I have known since the age of 10 that the only thing I want to spend my life doing is studying, consuming, and producing words and literature.
For the last 10 years of my life, every time I felt the looming threat of being disillusioned by reality, I turned to Harry Potter for comfort. But eventually it became more than an escape for me—it became my way of understanding real life and the people around me better. It was my model for friendship, resilience, and empathy. So more than anything else, I could not reconcile Rowling’s cruelty with the things Harry Potter taught me over and over again growing up—acceptance, tolerance and love.
It was Luna Lovegood who taught me that accepting yourself when nobody else understands you is the most important thing, and Hermione Granger who taught me that accepting anything less than equality is simply not an option. So how is it that the same woman who created both my role models growing up is now refusing to accept that trans women are women?
It is impossible to make sense of, and even harder to accept, when the fort of love and magic so many of us have lived in for most of our lives suddenly threatens to collapse. That is probably why so many fans have attempted to erase J.K. Rowling from memory, posting jokes about how the books magically appeared into the world of their own will—a narrative I am all too tempted to buy into myself.
It is a comforting thought, being able to forsake the author in our minds while holding the books in our hands. But is it really possible to keep the books while leaving the author behind, or is it ultimately necessary to leave the books behind too?
I first asked myself this question two years ago and I am still struggling to come up with an answer for myself. Obviously, the emotional resonance of the books, while profound, signifies very little when compared to the lives and rights of trans people. And it is not my intention to speak for trans people in any capacity—just to pose the question of whether it is possible to separate the impact of the books from the impact of the author.
It is impossible to deny that the Harry Potter series has done a lot of good for a lot of people, not only changing lives but also saving them. Kacen Callender is a trans author who stated in their acceptance speech of the Stonewall Book Award in 2019 that Harry Potter saved their life; they planned to commit suicide as a child, and one of the reasons they didn’t was because they had to know how the series ended. Now, they are a writer themselves, and the author of the Young-Adult novel Felix Ever After, celebrating trans and non-binary identities. While they have made it clear that they believe we all have a responsibility to end our support of J.K. Rowling, they have acknowledged that the novels partially saved their life and inspired them to become an author.
It was not Rowling’s intention to inspire trans and non-binary fans to become writers, but the Harry Potter series did that anyway. The books have a life of their own, then, far too great to be contained by the limits of her prejudice.
In the midst of my crisis triggered by Rowling’s tweets, I went down a rabbit hole of reading stories from fans whose lives had changed due to the series. From children who found a friend in the books when they had none, to a 28-year-old fan who recognized that one single line from Deathly Hallows saved her life by validating her mental health struggles: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?”
This only confused me more. If there is anything in a book that has the ability to save lives, is the book not worth saving?
So when Daniel Radcliffe responded to Rowling’s tweets in support of the trans community, I clung to his words like they were single-handedly keeping my understanding of the world from shattering: “If these books taught you that love is the strongest force in the universe, capable of overcoming anything; if they taught you that strength is found in diversity, and that dogmatic ideas of pureness lead to the oppression of vulnerable groups; if you believe that a particular character is trans, non-binary, or gender fluid, or that they are gay or bisexual; if you found anything in these stories that resonated with you and helped you at any time in your life—then that is between you and the book that you read, and it is sacred. And in my opinion nobody can touch that.”
“The birth of the reader must be required by the death of the author,” Roland Barthes said. If that is true, then Rowling is long gone, and Harry Potter belongs entirely to those who escaped into it when the real world did not have enough magic in it, to people who wrote queer fanfiction about their favourite characters, and to people like me, who looked at characters like Luna and Hermione and Tonks and saw parts of ourselves reflected in them.
Still, I recognize the problem with separating the art from the artist. And despite the overarching values of acceptance it instills in readers, the series is not free of Rowling’s bigotry. The extremely stereotypical depiction of the only Asian character, outrageously named ‘Cho Chang,’ is hard to ignore. The “unregistered animagus” Rita Skeeter, who could illegally shape-shift between the form of a human and a beetle has inspired speculation—the fact that she abused her shape-shifting abilities for malicious purposes, coupled with the masculine descriptions of Rita (having “mannish hands” and a “heavily jawed face”) has pointed to the strong possibility that she is an embodiment of Rowling’s transphobic views.
This complicates the process of bringing about the “death of the author” whilst preserving the life of the book, but it does not change the fact that they are lives worth preserving, and it does not make it impossible to do. It instead means that for as long as Harry Potter is still talked about, the cultural conversation surrounding the series—and more importantly, the author—needs to be even louder. We don’t separate the art from the artist, then—or pretend the books magically appeared out of thin air, or that they are flawless. We instead acknowledge the flaws, reject the hatred. We denounce the artist for failing the art that is no longer hers, and we take pride in taking it beyond the realms of her control where we continue to make it our own.
“Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who deserve it,” Dumbledore told Harry once. For those who packed their books away because they believe Rowling no longer deserves to benefit from the Harry Potter franchise: it is possible to continue living in Hogwarts without paying Rowling any dues. By preserving already yellowing copies for as long as possible so as to never have to buy another one, by buying used copies instead of new ones, and by purchasing fan-made, instead of official merchandise. Hogwarts will always be there to welcome us home, and it will never require that we help Rowling fund transphobic legislation and organizations.
I cannot say that any of this is a perfect solution, and I do not claim to offer one. Nothing I have said is a definitive answer to my question, but it is the only one I have for now, the only one which offers the possibility of preserving the light without tolerating the darkness. Harry Potter taught me that love is transcendental, and more powerful than any hatred could ever be—I can only hope that the love and the magic the books bring to the world burn brighter than Rowling’s prejudice.